Katko v. Briney
||This article needs attention from an expert on the subject. (June 2011)|
|Katko v. Briney|
|Court||Iowa Supreme Court|
|Full case name||Marvin Katko v. Edward Briney and Bertha L. Briney|
|Citation(s)||183 N.W.2d 657|
|Appealed from||Iowa District Court for the 8th Judicial District|
|Landowner had a duty not to set potentially deadly traps for trespassers.|
|Judges sitting||Chief Justice
C. Edwin Moore
Robert L. Larson · William Corwin Stuart · M. L. Mason · Francis H. Becker · Warren J. Rees · Maurice E. Rawlings · Clay LeGrand · Harvey Uhlenhopp
Katko v. Briney, 183 N.W.2d 657 (Iowa 1971), was a famous court case decided by the Supreme Court of Iowa, in which a homeowner (Edward Briney) was held liable for battery for injuries caused to a trespasser (Marvin Katko) who set off a spring gun set as a mantrap in an abandoned house on the homeowner's property.
Briney inherited an old farmhouse which he had left vacant the last ten years in Iowa. Over the years Briney made sure the property boarded up and had "No Trespassing" signs around it. The house was in deteriorating condition after remaining unused for several years. Briney was very upset with the constant burglaries and break-ins at his unoccupied farmhouse. To solve this issue, Briney mounted a 20-gauge spring-loaded shotgun in the farmhouse to fire when the north bedroom door was opened. The gun was aimed to shoot an intruder's legs so as not to cause a mortal injury. Briney also covered the bedroom window with steel. Five days later, Katko went into the farmhouse with the intent of stealing some old bottles and dated fruit jars that Katko considered antiques. Katko knew that the antiques were there because two weeks prior him and a friend had previously broken into the unoccupied home. Upon Katko entering the bedroom, the trigger mechanism was tripped and the shotgun fired into Katko’s legs at point blank range. The gunshot wounds sustained by Katko were sufficiently severe for him to require hospitalization. Katko sued Briney after his release from hospital.
Opinion of the Court
Garold Heslinga of Oskaloosa, Iowa, was the attorney for the appellee (Katko) and Bruce Palmer and H.S. Life. also of Oskaloosa, Iowa, represented the appellants (Brineys).
The Court ruled that using deadly force on intruders in an unoccupied property was not reasonable or justified. Briney would have been justified in defending himself with the shotgun if he had been home during the intrusion. The plaintiff's status as a trespasser is irrelevant when assessing liability in this case.
The case stands for the proposition that, though a landowner has no duty to make his property safe for trespassers, he may not set deadly traps against them, holding that "the law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property." The court thus ruled for Katko, entering judgment for $20,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.
The case had several subsequent results. The Brineys sold 80 of their 120 acres (0.49 km2) to pay the judgment while proceeding with an appeal. Three of Briney's neighbors bought the property at auction, paying $1 more than the minimum bid of $10,000. After the appeal was denied, they made a leaseback arrangement with Briney, but eventually one sold his share to his son for a profit. Briney and Katko then joined in a lawsuit against the neighbor to create a constructive trust on the profit, but the case was settled before trial in an amount sufficient to close out the judgment against Briney.
As Katko's injury was misreported by the United Press International wire service as having taken place in the Briney residence, several states introduced what were called "Briney Bills" for self-defense, which was not at issue in the case. The Nebraska Legislature act, stating that "no person ... shall be placed in ... jeopardy ... for protecting, by any means necessary, himself, his family, or his real estate property", was overturned due to improper delegation of sentencing authority in State v. Goodseal (1971).
Four years after the case was decided, Briney was asked if he would change anything about the situation. Briney replied: "There's one thing I'd do different, though, I'd have aimed that gun a few feet higher."